Not long ago I spent a lot of time with a tough ex-cop from Baltimore. No, I’m not in the witness protection program. I was speaking at a Youth For Christ event in Maryland, and the guy assigned to ferry me around was Rob Benson, a former street cop in Baltimore, who left all that to fuel his passion for reaching teenagers for Christ. In our last issue we published Rob’s shrewd strategies for handling conflict in ministry—the hard lessons he learned as a street cop.
As Rob drove me in his van from the airport to the venue to the hotel and back again, I asked lots of questions—he fascinated me. Rob has a heart for the no-hopers—kids who scare or intimidate or depress the other adults in their lives. His ministry is essentially a lost-and-found outpost for teenagers who’ve slipped through the cracks. Sitting just behind me in the van—always—was a senior high boy who was born in one of the breakaway Soviet-bloc countries. He’d been adopted by an American family in Rob’s church.
Whenever there was a lull in the conversation, I asked this young guy about his life. The stories started out slightly over-the-top and quickly progressed to unbelievable and bizarre—midnight escapes from the Russian Mafia, cross-border treks to freedom, and so on. It dawned on me that this guy was either delusional or the lost son of James Bond. He was always with Rob during the event, staying with him in his hotel room, riding with him to run errands, and helping him at the conference.
Early on, Rob could see my mental gears grinding and pulled me aside. He told me that this kid had some mental issues—he’d indeed been adopted by an American family, but his outbursts, delusional ramblings, and sometimes scary behavior meant the family had been forced to find a special group home for him. Meanwhile, Rob had latched on to him, picking him up for every ministry gathering and taking him to conferences like the one we were at.
It brings tears to my eyes right now as I write about this. Rob, in the deepest sense, was living out the heart of youth ministry. That is, he was moving toward this kid in the spirit of Jesus—the shocking beauty of Jesus. Boston University philosophy professor Peter Kreeft delivered an address at Gordon-Conwell Seminary last fall—it was titled “The Shocking Beauty of Jesus.” I’ve listened to the entire, 80-minute lecture, but he had me at the title. (To listen to it, go to peterkreeft.com, click on the “Featured Audio” link, then scroll down to click on “Shocking Beauty.”) Jesus’ beauty is shocking because it’s extravagant—from setting people free from lifelong suffering to smashing the Pharisees’ self-righteous crust to letting his own children pound nails through his hands and feet as a final sacrifice for their sin. I’m never more myself than when I’m worshipping Jesus’ shocking beauty.
So sitting next to Rob in that van was a worship experience for me—I was ambushed by the beauty of Jesus in his words and actions. And isn’t shocking beauty, ultimately and always, the reason youth ministry makes an impact?
In Doug Fields’ interview with Sue Mallory (page 14 in this issue) he tells a short story about an extroverted youth ministry volunteer who usually likes to “play the room” at youth group. But one day, instead, he spends all his time talking to a guy who’s sitting alone. Doug pulls him aside later and tells him, “That’s great youth ministry.” You and I both know that’s true—but why? It’s because Jesus was the first to show us the beauty of leaving the 99 behind to pursue the one who’s wandered away into lostness.
All our acts of beauty have their roots in Jesus because he’s the source of all beauty. So every beautiful act or word seeded into your ministry means Jesus is that much more worshipped and remembered. Ultimately, our purpose is to shine a spotlight on Jesus’ beauty, then play matchmaker with kids. Youth ministry at its best is shocking.
You Must Know This: I’m so excited about two new “babies.” The first is the June release of our new youth Bible called Live—it’s brimming with teenagers’ artwork, poetry, photography, and…beauty. And even more beautiful, every single book introduction points back to Jesus. To check it out, go to youthministry.com/live. Also, we’ve just launched a new idea-packed newsletter for junior high ministry in partnership with Kurt Johnston of Saddleback Church and Scott Rubin of Willow Creek Community Church. I think this thing is a must for anyone who’s working with young teenagers. Go to youthministry.com/jrhighnews to check it out.
rick has been editor of group Magazine for 20 years. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. And you can get a copy of his new book Jesus-Centered Youth Ministry or his 10-week curriculum In Pursuit of Jesus: Stepping Off the Beaten Path at youthministry.com.
Book—Intimate Moments With the Savior, Ken Gire
Music—Saturday Nights and Sunday Mornings, Counting Crows; My Funny Valentine, Chet Baker
Films—Dan in Real Life and Babette’s Feast